'I am a serious actor, you know." Peter Byrne's words ring hollow as he pulls his gold lam Alderman's cloak on to his shoulders.

He turns to his dresser: "Have you seen my socks?"

His small tizzy is for theatrical effect only. The twinkle in his eye suggests that this is a man not prone to taking himself too seriously.

"I've done all the classical roles," he declares. "Abanazer, King Rat, you name it."

This year, Peter is both co-star and director of Dick Whittington, the annual pantomime at the north's most venerable arena for such shows, the Bradford Alhambra. Even by local standards, it's a big hit. Its stars, the Chuckle Brothers, are immense draws to children who have been nagging and wheedling their parents to take them along.

Peter and the boys have worked together on several previous occasions, and he defers them as comedy giants. Considering some of the company he's kept over the years, that's praise indeed.

Entering showbusiness as a juvenile, as part of Will Hay's company ("Unfortunately he'd finished making films by then") Peter graduated to an appearance in the 1945 Royal Command Performance with Nervo and Knox from the Crazy Gang. "There were pictures of us in the newspapers the next day, with the King and Queen and Churchill watching us," he says.

He went on to appear with or direct most of the major light entertainment stars of the last 40 years. (He names Ronnie Corbett, Jimmy Cricket and Ted Rogers among his panto greats). Yet when he says he is a serious actor, he's not joking - and it is in that capacity that his features have become etched into the memories of generations of TV viewers.

In the Eighties he was Derek, "gentleman caller" to the Mersey matriarch Nellie Boswell in Bread. In the Fifties and Sixties he was more famous still, as Sgt Andy Crawford, sidekick to the title character in the seminal police drama, Dixon of Dock Green.

The show was one of the landmarks of early TV, becoming as much a part of the British Saturday as watching football and stepping out dancing.

But the cosy homilies of Sgt George Dixon, delivered from the police station doorstep and prefaced by a cheery 'Evening All', almost never made it to the screen.

"The drama department turned it down, back in 1955," says Peter. "They looked at the subtitle and said, 'Stories of an ordinary policeman? How boring!' You had to be in Scotland Yard or else a country yokel to be considered interesting.

"But soon afterwards, the BBC's entertainment department picked the series up and put it out on Saturday nights. And in those days before videos, it was an unbeatable formula. You had Juke Box Jury, then us, then the Billy Cotton Band Show or Cliff Richard, then a film and Match of the Day. It was tradition."

Dixon of Dock Green had its first incarnation in the 1950 film, The Blue Lamp. Jack Warner's PC George Dixon had been shot dead before the end of the third reel; for television he'd been not only resurrected but promoted, too.

Peter wasn't in the film, but he appeared with Warren Mitchell in the stage version which preceded the TV series.

"I did a Blackpool summer season with Warren and we shared a flat," he says. "£25 a week, we got. Riches."

Peter got the stage part because the impresario Jack Hylton, whose production it was, knew his father.

"My dad was a musician. He'd been in Jack's band, and as a result I was the only straight juvenile he knew."

Dixon ran on TV for 23 years and 430 episodes, providing not only a launchpad for Peter, but also a pension plan for Warner, who was already over the police retirement age when it began.

"Jack was an extraordinary man," says Peter. "He was a racing driver at Brooklands, a car salesman and a concert artiste doing songs at the piano. He changed his name because his sisters, Elsie and Doris Waters, were megastars.

"When the war came he did Garrison Theatre on the radio, and on the strength of that he went into the music halls. Then he had a film career and when that was dying, Dixon came along on television."

The BBC has wiped most of the old episodes - many of which were transmitted and performed live and had disappeared into the ether as soon as the words were out of the actors' mouths - but Peter professes to be living on his royalties from the overseas repeats of Bread. "I'm big in the world but small in Britain," he says.

His stature in Bradford, however, is unquestioned - especially now his cast has discovered that it's his initial on their paycheques.

He set up the panto company E&B Productions with the leading West End producer Paul Elliott many years ago, but later sold out to him when the schedule of Dixon and his own stage appearances became too time consuming.

"It confuses ex-wives and the Inland Revenue," says Peter. "But it's great for discipline as the word gets around: 'He's the B in E&B'. They don't realise that now I'm just a humble employee like them."

In the old days it was very different. "Paul and I used to direct the shows ourselves because we couldn't afford to hire anyone else. One year I was the musical director, too."

The role didn't suit him, he says, but it did at least teach him a few tricks of the panto trade - such as the practice of inserting what he now calls toilet songs into the narrative. "That's when the poor old princess sings while they frantically change the scenery behind her, and everyone else goes to the lavatory."

Peter used to specialise in playing panto villains. Now, though, as the increasing technical demands of directing occupy his time, he has withdrawn to being the 'avuncular comic feed', a description applied to him last year which he cherishes; the Alderman who says, "I don't wish to know that!" to the comedians.

"Feeding is a great art," he says. "People always say Eric Morecambe was wonderful, but he wouldn't have been half the comedian he was without Ernie."

His continuing commitment to the live stage notwithstanding, he'd quite like to rack up a few more TV appearances before he enters his dotage - and he's not reticent about admitting why.

"Another series would suit me just nicely," he says. "Just put your money up, I tell you."

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